On July 15, I received a Facebook message from an unfamiliar person, Ben T. Parris III. As we talked, we realized we have several heartwarming connections. His family has had a long presence in Cave Spring and Cedartown. He also shared stories about his aunt and uncles who were involved with Georgia School for the Deaf many years ago.
Looking back, he said, “My father (Ben Jr.) had many friends who were students (at GSD). He learned to sign at an early age and years later we would meet one of them in Cedartown and I would be amazed at how they enjoyed signing and ‘catching up.’ When I was young and visiting my grandparents (I lived between Cedartown and Cave Spring), I would hang out at the pool. There were often 10-15 (GSD) students there playing football. I was included in their game that for me was ‘touch’ football but for them was full blown tackle. Thumping heads do sound like watermelons bumping but never, not ever, did I ever see one of them cry. They also taught me how to swim. That means they threw me in the pool and would not let me hold onto the side, forcing me to swim. I never learned to sign but they communicated me with no problem.”
As we talked more, I was surprised to learn that he was from the Cedartown High School Class of 1959. My mother’s classmate 63 years ago! He sent me a picture of his 1959 CHS yearbook with Mom’s photo. She had written on her picture “Best wishes, Nellie.”
Later, I learned that Ben was a descendant of George W. West and Matilda G. Prior, the eldest hearing sibling of the Deaf Priors. Asa Prior and George West were trustees of the Cedar Valley Academy, the first public Deaf school in Georgia, which paved the way for the opening of GSD. Ben attended the Deaf Priors Dedication Ceremony held on July 28. There, he met Mom and Pat Robinson, also Class of 1959 members.
On Sept. 10, I joined 15 of 17 CHS Class of 1959 members at Petro’s restaurant in Cedartown. When I arrived, Ben surprised me by signing, “SUPPORT CVA.” In a recent column, I mentioned that GSD celebrated its 175th anniversary in different ways, including a birthday video where several Prior descendants signed, “SUPPORT CVA,” in American Sign Language, recognizing the school opened by Asa Prior. What a nice gesture.
After lunch, some of us visited the Polk County Historical Society Museum. We admired the new exhibit about the Deaf Priors and CVA, which includes a picture of Arleigh Ordoyne, PCHS museum director, and me. ASL Rose donated a decorated green table runner used in pictures on social media counting down the days until the Deaf Prior Dedication Ceremony, and as the cover for the monument unveiling. The runner is now hanging in the museum. Ben said, “The recent dedication of the monument recognizing the Deaf Priors in Cedartown has been a work of love by people who recognize the importance of history. It reminds us of the love of a father and mother for their Deaf children. The Polk County Historical Society Museum is a continuance of that love. The museum is filled with items of our past, donated by people wanting to add to the preservation of history and curated by people who donate both time and efforts.”
Ben’s aunt and uncles’ names are in the Centennial Celebration: One Hundred Years of Education for the Deaf in Georgia, 1848-1948. Margaret “Peggy” Parris was listed as a teacher from 1939 to 1943. Peggy probably knew ASL before attending Berry College, where she graduated in 1936. She taught English Literature at GSD. She told Ben that “at GSD they weren’t supposed to sign, but they did anyway.” She taught at Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, just for one year, because it was too cold. She headed south to teach at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind for several years before teaching at Oregon School for the Deaf.
Ben’s great uncle, Richard C. Parris, and his son, Charles N. Parris, are listed as vocational teachers from 1916 to 1932 and 1928 to 1931 respectively. Richard and his brother, Ben T. Parris, Sr., built a pump to drain the small pond in front of the cave in what is now Rolater Park. The Atlanta Constitution mentioned Richard was the GSD superintendent of industries at the time of his passing. Richard, Charles, and Charles’s son share their final resting place with many GSD alumni, employees, and students in the Cave Spring Cemetery.
Ben’s grandparents, Ben Sr. and Ava, ran a store from their two-story house that is still standing. For many years, they operated a switch built into their house connected to a fire siren. They received calls when there were fires and turned the siren on, summoning volunteer firemen.
Stories exploring the connections between Cedartown and Cave Spring show how small the world can be!